Grant Feller: 'it’s not just journalists who can write and publish opinions'
Grant Feller: 'it’s not just journalists who can write and publish opinions'
A view from Grant Feller

Why content should not be the sole domain of journalists

The best thing about the Financial Times on Saturday is the brilliant parody that is How To Spend It. 

Well it’s a joke in our house anyway – how to spend what, my wife laments. This weekend it was a travel special and included acres of mellifluous prose penned by lucky journalists sent on eye-wateringly expensive holidays to Morocco, Johannesburg and Wyoming.

None of it was really journalism – they were well-written types of advertorial plugging the companies (as well as airlines – lucky Lucia van der Post!) that set up the trip and will benefit enormously from the publicity.

I’m not sneering, for it used to be one of the perks of my job in Fleet Street. But it’s clearly a practice that the newspaper’s lofty US editor abhors. For Andrew Edgecliffe-Johnson bemoaned in the same issue of the paper how an increasing number of so-called journalists – he terms them so-called, I think they’re genuine – are moving into the corporate space by turning "the clunky advertorials of old into slick multi-media messages known as brand journalism, content marketing or the innocuous sounding storytelling." 

It’s hard to think of anything more pompous, arrogant and downright dumb than a high-profile journalist deriding the democratisation of content in the digital age. For that’s what Andrew is really upset about. After all, there are content sites like Medium, LinkedIn, Huffington Post and even corporate blogs that – horror! – actually carry content that has not been written by bylined journalists employed by media organisations. As such, according to his implausible argument, they are PR-driven propaganda designed only to tell "one side of the story".

I hate to break this to you, Andrew, but it’s not just journalists who can write and publish opinions. Admittedly, that used to be the case but now not even your King Canute-like protestations can hold back the tide of content we’re swimming in.

Andrew’s beef is that Amazon’s comms chief recently used the increasingly influential Medium website to hit back at The New York Times investigation into his company’s work practices. However, says Andrew, his published and obviously biased article was merely a PR stunt. It’s part of what he calls the "invasion of corporate news" in which companies use the tools that were once the preserve of media companies (and the Andrews they employed) to tell their own stories.

And that’s wrong? So when I help a CEO write an article for the World Economic Forum about why his company is investing in emerging markets, that’s advertorial? When the head of a charity uses their Huffington Post blog to highlight an issue they’re desperately trying to raise money to combat, that’s "brand-buffing"? When a hedge fund manager writes a self-interested polemic for the FT, that’s the kind of one-sided narrative that should be ignored? Or when writers like me help a corporation, such as Philips, tell its customers stories about lives being enhanced by their products, that’s unworthy of journalists?

Clearly not everyone at the FT agrees with Andrew. The company’s marketing department has built a shiny new content-producing division so that financial institutions, wristwatch firms and travel companies can run their native advertising on the newspaper’s website or in one its highly-lucrative supplements. As well as making a tidy profit, Andrew’s colleagues will no doubt be happy these deals ensure they get paid at the end of the month.

It’s about time media companies stopped viewing owned content on sites such as Medium, Forbes and HuffPo as PR puffery. Content is no longer the preserve of trained and gifted writers who acted like haughty gatekeepers, pretending that their Mauritius holiday reviews were journalism.

Content gives businesses and the executives who work for them an unrivalled opportunity to develop their brands and messaging, to communicate with their customers and stay one step ahead of their rivals. If the FT’s leading commentators don’t realise that, they risk coming across as behind-the-times veterans sniping from the sidelines. 

Grant Feller is director of GF-Media. And would like a freebie to Zanzibar.